The Answer Does Not Appease the Question

My 4-year-old daughter’s barrage of unending “wise” child like questions are both developmentally appropriate and exhausting. She wants to know what things are and understand them at all times. But the questions she does not yet know how to ask are more likely to push the boundaries of my parenting confidence.

She often works out particularly juicy ideas through make-believe and fantasy play. This was the case the other day, when she wrapped herself in a blanket, turned to my wife, said, “Let’s play poor person” and then instructed her mother to look sad and ask for money. As we live in an urban area with a visible homeless community, it is not surprising that she has become curious about poverty, but it is difficult to know how to navigate this type of play.

My initial discomfort stemmed from my desire to raise an empathic person concerned for the “other,” especially the misfortunate. I do not want my daughter to be disrespectful, to become entitled, or think she is somehow better than someone else.

But then I began to question if this was the real reason for my discomfort. This is the challenge with questions (or at least really good questions), they lead us to places we did not anticipate. Comparing the curious person to the fundamentalist, Seth Godin writes, “a curious person… explores first then considers whether or not he wants to accept the ramifications.”  For the curious, questions are potentially destabilizing. “The ramifications” Godin refers to are the possibilities that everything we have previously thought could be wrong and everything we have done misguided. A question once asked, cannot be put away. It is like an itch that needs to be scratched. The French literary critic, Maurice Blanchot wrote, “The question awaits an answer, but the answer does not appease the question.” The residue of the question’s inquiry remains even after an answer has been given.

My questioning led me to admit that I am uncomfortable navigating the subject of poverty because I am not ready to seriously tackle my own privilege or change the behaviors that allow me to ignore this ever present and growing problem. I want to engage with others’ immediate needs but I am not sure I want to challenge the power structures that allow my family to live my relatively comfortable lifestyle. I am much more comfortable offering tzedaka anonymously than dealing with it face to face. I may open the door at the start of the seder and say, “let all who are hungry come eat,” but if someone were to actually take me up on the offer, I am not sure what I would do.

About the Author
Joshua Seth Ladon is Bay Area Manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and a doctoral student in Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.